Last month, we shared our 5 Questions with writer Andre Dubus III, who will be speaking at Amherst this summer. Here is more from that conversation with Dubus:
GBSP: You come from a literary family, in addition to your father, there is your aunt the novelist Elizabeth Nell Dubus, mother of Delaune’ Michel, also a novelist. There is also the acclaimed crime writer James Lee Burke, and his daughter, Alafair Burke. That’s quite a pedigree. Was there familial or societal pressure to succeed in publishing?
Here’s the sad irony. No. My father was a short story writer and he was successful because he was published but he was not widely read. He was a deeply humble man and a true artist. He taught me that triumph is not in the publication or the amount of the advance paid for any given book. It’s not the rave reviews in the New York Times. It’s in the manuscript on your desk with a beginning middle and end that you wrote and rewrote. That’s what should be celebrated.
My father called me a writer 10 years before I thought of myself as one. I took jobs early in my writing life; I made a conscious or semi-conscious decision not to take a real job so that my writing would be more like a hobby. I cleaned houses and offices. I became a carpenter, now there’s a skill to master. My point is, when my college friends were rising up the corporate ladder, I lived a simple life with my dancer wife. Being a writer was never the plan.
My view is that there’s the work on one hand and the career on the other. Be a writer, not an author. I teach a 14 week writing class and devote about 20 minutes in the14th week to talk about publishing. When I was on tour for my memoir TOWNIE I hired someone to teach that class. I’m getting 4 hours of sleep and doing interviews and I’m finding myself kind of blue. The truth is, if I don’t write I feel terrible. People who want to write have to ask themselves, do I love the process and “sweet labor” of writing. And I do!
GBSP: You have a degree in sociology. Has that been helpful in your writing career?
At first blush, no, but of course every life experience helps the writer. The benefit of studying the social sciences is that you learn a little bit about a lot of different things. Looking back, I’m glad I wasn’t an English major, because if you’ve read and studied really great writing you can get intimidated. I was ignorant about great literature and what is really good and what isn’t. My friends who followed the masters, some of them had trouble when they sat down to write. Self consciousness is the enemy to creativity. Faulkner said that the main thing the young writer needs isn’t talent, but “…curiosity, insight, to wonder, to mull and to muse why it is that man does what he does…” In my writing life, ignorance ended up serving me.
GBSP: Your novel House of Sand and Fog was nominated for the National Book Award, topped the New York Times bestseller list, was selected by Oprah for her book club and made into a film that was nominated for an Academy Award. And it has been translated into many many languages. When you were writing the book, did you have any inkling about the level of success it would have? Of these things, which was the most significant to you?
My first three books were submitted to over 100 publishers before they found a home. I never thought about what success as a writer would mean. I grew up kind of scrappy, used to the world being hard. I expected nothing from the world but grief. The last dozen years or so I’ve been kind of freaked out at all the attention. I really had no inkling. People asked me if my father helped me, made calls for me. The answer to that is no. He and I just happened to have the same name.
When Library Journal reviewed my book Bluesman, they named my father as its author. At first I felt robbed and violated and thought, why didn’t I change my name? Well, it was because I felt so authentically me when I wrote I couldn’t put a phony name on it. We play the hand we are dealt and learn things. I realized that it didn’t matter whether anyone thought my dad wrote the book. When I read Hamlet, I think of and care about Hamlet, not Shakespeare. That experience freed me and I let go of any desire or expectation. I just would write every day so that, as Thomas Williams said, “I don’t die before I’m dead.” That’s how I have lived my life and still do.
When I was writing House of Sand and Fog I would write whenever and wherever I could find quiet – in my car next to a graveyard, or during the few minutes I had before I taught my class. In those days, when I met my wife, I was a bartender and the night life didn’t mix with family life and so I became an apprentice carpenter. And an adjunct professor. I wrote in long hand pencil in notebooks, and after 3 years I had a beginning, middle, and end. I spent a year typing 22 notebooks, then 6 months revising. We had our three kids during the time I wrote it. It went to 24 publishers in 3 years before it found a publisher. I was amazed that it got published at all.
As far as the book’s success, here’s my point of reference. I saw my father, a man who created art, and every time he published nothing changed. So I had no expectations. I was trying to create something that people might want to read, but I wasn’t really thinking of the reader; I was thinking about the characters. As you point out, the book got a lot of recognition, but for me, it was the National Book Award nomination that was the most meaningful. I didn’t see it coming, it wasn’t on my radar. I realized that people don’t have to like what I write, for it to be taken seriously. So, it wasn’t fame and fortune that I wanted from my art, it was to have it taken seriously, to not be dismissed. The financial success has been good in that I am a better provider for my family, in a way my parents never were.
The writing of Townie really was an accidental memoir. I failed three separate times writing fiction from my life. I can’t do what Truman Capote does, so it took me about 8 or 9 years writing it as a novel before I came to it as a memoir. And it started out as a baseball essay. My boys were playing baseball and I started asking myself, how come I didn’t play baseball as a kid and from there I got deeper into what I was doing instead of playing baseball. It was when I was turning 50 and there were enough years between my writing it and when it happened. Of course the hardest part was writing about my family, because I didn’t want to violate their privacy but because I was writing it for my three kids, it allowed me to be true.
GBSP: You say that writing saved your life. If you had grown up in different circumstances, would writing have been as significant to you?
I can’t imagine coming to writing in a different way. Writing literally saves my spiritual life every day I practice it. The French writer Leon Bloy wrote something like, “Man has places in his heart which do not yet exist, and into them enters suffering in order that they may have existence.” Always the aspiration for me, and I don’t know if I’ve succeeded, but every day that I write I try to transfer feeling from one heart to another.